Known for its soaring language, its universal scope, and the stunning clarity of its prophecies of Christ, the book of Isaiah is truly the queen of the Old Testament prophetic books. Designed to guide an intensive fifteen week study, Understanding Isaiah is an in-depth, and yet a lay-level overview of the beautiful messianic message of Isaiah the prophet.
The first verse in the book of Isaiah is helpful in that it gives a historical setting for the prophecies that follow, and it specifies the immediate audience to whom the prophet was writing. We see by this information that Isaiah was the earliest of the major writing prophets (although not the earliest of any writing prophet – Jonah, Amos, and Hosea were likely earlier than Isaiah), and that his message had to do primarily with the southern kingdom of Judah (unlike that of Amos and Hosea). The period of Judah’s history in which Isaiah would have been prophesying is marked by great changes: Uzziah and Jotham, although each with certain defects, were on the whole good kings; Ahaz was thoroughly wicked and corrupt; Hezekiah was characterized by a whole-hearted righteousness such as had not been seen in any king since David (II Kings 18:1-6). And if Isaiah lived to see Manasseh’s reign as well, as Jewish tradition has it, then he also experienced the court of the most wicked king in Judah’s history (II Chronicles 33:1-9). This extreme fluctuation in the outward appearance of godliness in Judah is an important backdrop to Isaiah’s prophecies. It is striking that his essential message does not change throughout any change in Judah’s kings. In Hezekiah’s reign, as well as in Ahaz’s, the people of Judah are denounced as corrupt, and certain judgment is prophesied (e.g. see Isaiah 58:1-8). The presence of a good king is not sufficient to change the people’s hearts; but a coming king is promised who will do just that (cf. Isaiah 11:1-9; 42:1-7). This “Branch of David” forms the sole substance of the hope of God’s people. They can no longer look back to their nationality, descent from Abraham, etc., to assure their hearts of acceptance with God. For that, only the coming King about whom Isaiah is diligent to prophesy will prove to be sufficient.
It is noteworthy as well that Isaiah’s prophecies are addressed to Judah. Hosea has already proclaimed with great certainty that Israel would be cast off from being God’s people (Hosea 1:6-9). Isaiah’s prophecies extend this indictment to Judah, so that the entirety of God’s people are emphatically brought under the impending judgment of exile. Isaiah would live to see this judgment actually brought upon Israel. Judah’s exile was still more than a hundred years future, but Isaiah expressed with certainty and clarity that it was indeed coming. A further reason for the emphasis of Judah in Isaiah’s message is the central truth that the promised King of David would himself be from Judah. Judah as a nation would be cast off, and yet all was not lost: the hope of the entire world, the promised Christ, was to spring from this devastated nation and bring healing to all.
Before we move into verse two, and the remainder of chapter one, it will be in place to note the function of the first five chapters in the book of Isaiah. As you will remember from last week, Isaiah’s call and commission come in chapter six. Are we to infer from this fact that the first five chapters are prophecies made before Isaiah’s grand vision of God that we read about in the sixth chapter? That is possible, and has certainly been suggested by many reliable bible scholars, but it is more likely that the event of chapter six actually took place before any of the prophetic writings. Isaiah is not laid out in strictly chronological fashion; and, although we see many historical references in the prophecies following chapter six, there are none prior to it. This, coupled with the nature of the prophecies in the first five chapters, would suggest that this portion forms a sort of introductory preface to the book of prophecies as a whole: in this preface, we see all the major themes that would form the substance of the more specific prophecies later on in the book. Isaiah chapters 1-5 lays out a basic blueprint of the prophetic message of the book as a whole, a blueprint that will be elaborated upon in much more intricate detail in the later prophecies.